Minister of the Diaspora: In order to engage with young American Jews, we must advance the Palestinian question
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Fla .– While there is a preparatory course to become Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Nachman Shai says he has passed it.
In this case, however, Shai was the instructor, teaching Israeli public diplomacy for two years – between 2019 and 2021 – at Emory University and Duke University in the southeastern United States. .
Yet the veteran Labor Party lawmaker – best known for his tenure as an IDF spokesperson during the 1991 Gulf War – said the experience on US college campuses was as much a learning experience for him as it was for its students.
In an interview earlier this month, Shai said his two years in the United States opened his eyes to how young people abroad perceive the state of Israel. He described a generation that will not like a Jewish state that pretends to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and a generation that can only be engaged with through social media, where the new minister says his government has been absent since. long time.
“This may not be the case in Israel, but [in the US], the Palestinian issue is at the top of the youth agenda, and I am constantly told that we will continue to pay a price in public opinion if we fail to resolve it, ”Shai said, speaking to The Times. of Israel on the sidelines of the Israel American Council National Summit in Florida.
But if the new government, which was sworn in six months ago, wants to impress upon today’s young people that its approach to the Palestinian issue is in fact changing after years of stagnation, Shai, 75, , insisted that he will not be able to do so through the traditional channels.
“Social media is essential for interacting with young people today, but [the Israeli government’s presence] on such platforms is almost non-existent, ”Shai lamented, adding that the Diaspora Affairs Ministry was now working to reorganize Israel’s“ digital ”footprint.
“IPads, iPhones and iWatches”
Shai admitted, however, that he still had a lot to learn and that the trip – his third to the United States since his cabinet appointment – centered on listening to leaders of the local Jewish community and assessing their expectations at respect.
“So far there has been no [expectations], so I try to raise them, ”he said, pointedly rejecting Israel’s engagement with the Jewish diaspora during previous terms of government.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Shai took office without any clue from him.
Even though those he met during his college classes were a specific subset of more engaged, predominantly Jewish students, the former college professor said they were still representative of a curious generation who scours social media for answers to global issues.
“They are learning by using their computers and their iPads and their iPhones and their iWatches… so we need to infuse stories and information about Israel on these platforms in order to broaden their knowledge of the problem and to understand why the Jews came to Israel in the past. start to take place, ”he said. “The reason may come naturally to those who live in Israel, but this is not the case for the younger generations abroad. “
While he acknowledges that various government departments have a long history of operating a variety of social media accounts aimed at interacting with audiences overseas, Shai retorted that “they apparently don’t reach young people in the United States because let their opinions not change, ”and said his office would approach the issue differently.
The “dead end” government
Shai said that it will be essential that the content disseminated by his office emphasizes the Palestinian issue, and this includes highlighting the measures taken by the new government in this area.
“Even if we manage to resolve the conflict, there will still be all kinds of criticism against Israel. But I understand that we have to move the Palestinian question forward. We cannot ignore it, we cannot abandon it, ”he said.
When asked what he says to young progressives who are concerned about Israel’s role in the ongoing conflict, Shai said he begins by explaining the complexity of the new government, which includes parties covering everything. the political spectrum.
Its Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, with at least one other coalition party, while Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is expected to inherit the post of Prime Minister from Bennett in August 2023 under a power-sharing deal is a supporter of the two-state solution, with other parties to his left.
“Not everyone is in agreement on… this question, so we wait. we can’t move forward [the Palestinian issue] right now. If they want to annex, we will not let them. If we try to advance the two-state solution, we will also be prevented from doing so. So it’s stuck in the middle, ”Shai explained.
He admitted that this disclaimer has not proven to be satisfactory for the progressive public until now, but said he was trying to explain that the coalition is the result of how the public voted . “They chose to drive the country into a kind of impasse, and this politically broad government was [the] Natural [result]. “
Regarding the government’s advance in October of plans for some 3,000 housing units in West Bank settlements, Shai has been dismissive, saying the plans go through several stages of approval and that construction has not actually gone through. advanced in the field.
However, it is almost exclusively during these early planning stages that policymakers can intervene.
But Shai pointed to the building permits that the Defense Ministry advanced for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank alongside the settlement houses. He also pointed to a recent government decision to allow 500 Palestinians from Gaza to enter Israel’s high-tech workforce and said this resonated with young American Jews and progressives alike. stranger looking for examples of measures taken to improve the lives of Palestinians under his control.
Boycott the debacles
On the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, which is attracting a lot of attention from pro-Israel organizations in the diaspora, Shai spoke in favor of the “hundreds of millions” of dollars spent by recent governments to fight the phenomenon.
He said he hadn’t come across any BDS campaign while teaching Emory or Duke, but was aware of “incidents” that had taken place in the area since his departure.
Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank tested Shai’s stance on the issue, but the Diaspora Affairs Minister said his opposition to the move was not an issue.
“I am against any boycott, so I do not differentiate between a boycott of the Israelis who have chosen to live in the settlements and [those who live within the Green Line],” he said.
In October, the government in which Shai sits finalized a deal with the European Union that will allocate millions of research grants to academic institutions across Israel, excluding the West Bank.
Asked to explain his support for the agreement, the Minister of Labor explained that it had been negotiated by previous governments and that the large sums that Israel will receive through Horizon Europe outweigh the willingness to interfere with it. ‘case.
Compromise on compromise?
Shai spoke to The Times of Israel days before aides to Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana told Zman Yisrael that the latter had agreed with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to put aside plans to implement the law. ‘a long-frozen deal to formalize an egalitarian prayer pavilion at the Western Wall. . The move infuriated both Conservative and Reform leaders in the United States, who say they waited long enough for the deal to come to fruition.
The Diaspora Affairs Minister has since spoken out against Kahana’s decision, saying that a government that wants to last must keep the promises it made.
“We are constantly told that the place is empty and that no one is visiting it. Okay, we get it. They therefore only come twice a week. So what? ”Shai said emphatically in the previous interview.“ This is a place where prayers go in a different way, so even if only 10 people come in a single week, they should be able to have this option available to them to organize egalitarian services. “
Yet the new government, although it is not made up of any hardline Haredi or religious Zionist parties most opposed to the so-called “Kotel compromise”, is finding it harder to move the proposal forward than initially expected.
“We are faced with a significant incentive from [opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu] and his gang who have managed to recruit large populations into Israeli society and threaten public safety, ”Shai said.
Labor Minister admitted it was not clear how important the Western Wall compromise is to the average Diaspora Jew, but said it was a priority for religious leaders that he encountered and the symbolism of an official non-Orthodox prayer pavilion at the holiest place where Jews can pray is important in itself.
While Israel’s relations with the diaspora may not overcome issues such as the Iranian nuclear threat or the fight against crime in Arab society, Shai said his goal in government is to ensure that the question is always at the top of the agenda.